Lon Chaney stars as a murderous and armless circus performer in THE UNKNOWN, one of the great silent horror star's best films, which also features a fine performance by a young Joan Crawford, and is directed by Tod Browning (DRACULA, FREAKS) with his customarily stylish sense of the
A traveling gypsy circus features such performers as strong-man Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) and Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney), who uses his feet to throw knives and shoots guns at the outline of his beautiful young assistant Nanon (Joan Crawford), who's the daughter of the circus owner
Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz). Alonzo, who actually has arms but is on the run from the police and keeps them hidden from everyone, is in love with Nanon, as is Malabar, but she hates being touched and has a pathological fear of being "pawed" by men's hands. After Zanzi sees Nanon hugging Alonzo,
he beats him up, and Alonzo uses his hands, one of which has two thumbs, to defend himself. Alonzo strangles Zanzi and kills him, and though Nanon has witnessed the murder from her window, the only part of the killer that she actually saw was his two thumbs.
Alonzo determines to marry Nanon, but his midget partner Cojo (John George) warns him that she will hate him when he reveals his arms and she sees that he has two thumbs. Crazed and obsessed, Alonzo decides to have his arms amputated so that Nanon will marry him. After the operation, Alonzo
returns to the circus and Nanon informs him that her fear of men's hands has been cured by Malabar, and that the two of them are going to be married. Alonzo pretends to be happy about it, but when he learns that Malabar's new act involves pulling on two horses that are running on treadmills in
opposite directions, he plots revenge. During a performance, Alonzo pushes the lever to stop the treadmill and the horses begin to pull on Malabar's arms. Nanon tries to help him, and when the horses are about to stomp her, Alonzo instinctively comes to her rescue and he is trampled to death.
Allegedly based on stories and incidents drawn from Browning's own experiences as a circus performer (he worked as a clown and a contortionist from the age of 16), THE UNKNOWN possesses that uniquely weird mixture of the realistic and the fantastic that makes all of Browning's horror films so
memorably creepy. Browning employs an interesting visual technique in the film, suffusing Alonzo's scenes with a dark and smoky look, while utilizing a kind of translucent canvas-textured gauze for the photography of the love scenes between Malabar and Nanon, giving them the appearance of
oil-painting tableaux. As always with Chaney and Browning, the story involves physical and psychological deformity, and there is a fascinating subtext that implies that the reason for Nanon's fear of men's hands is because her father had been molesting her. Chaney, with whom Browning made several
films, eschews his usual heavy facial makeup, but still gives an astonishing performance, convincingly using his toes to perform such feats as throwing knives, lighting cigarettes, and strumming a guitar. Joan Crawford is so young looking (she was 23 at the time), that her face seems unformed and
she even has some baby fat, while her vulnerable innocence is a far cry from the hard and bitter persona she would later adopt as the queen of '30s and '40s melodramas.
The scene where Alonzo returns after having his arms amputated and Nanon tells him that she's marrying Malabar, who has cured her of her fear of being touched through his persistence and gentleness (which Alonzo himself had ironically encouraged as part of his scheme to have Nanon reject Malabar),
is one of the most chilling and powerful moments in screen history. As Nanon takes Malabar's beefy arms and lustfully rubs them all over her body and kisses his hands, Alonzo forces a fake smile and laughs hysterically while his eyes register shock and his face contorts in spasms of pain, and he
finally breaks down and screams in horror. The finale is also highly effective, with frenzied intercutting of close-ups of the maniacal Alonzo, running horses, the treadmill stopping, Malabar desperately holding on, and Nanon whipping the horses, all creating pulse-pounding suspense. (Violence,adult situations.)
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- Review: Lon Chaney stars as a murderous and armless circus performer in THE UNKNOWN, one of the great silent horror star's best films, which also features a fine performance by a young Joan Crawford, and is directed by Tod Browning (DRACULA, FREAKS) with his custo… (more)